Wine: Silver medal for versatile Semillon

2012 Pech Matelles Merlot Gilles Louvet. Picture: Contributed
2012 Pech Matelles Merlot Gilles Louvet. Picture: Contributed
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‘Semillon produces fresh young wines and some top-level superstars’

ALTHOUGH riesling is probably the world’s most versatile grape variety, the silver medal position surely goes to semillon. Not only does it play the key role in most of Bordeaux’s fine dessert wines but, in Australia, it produces both light, fresh, young wines and some top-level, bottle-aged superstars.

An excellent example of its sweet wine persona can be found in 2010 The Society’s Exhibition Sauternes (£19, The Wine Society) with its floral, honey and butterscotch flavours and rich texture. This is about 85 per cent semillon (with sauvignon blanc providing the rest) but, despite that richness and depth, the wine is kept flexible by its excellent acidity and the sharp lime influences through which that acidity manifests itself. As a result, the wine can successfully accompany lighter desserts when heavier sweeties would smother them completely.

If, however, you are looking for an inexpensive entrée to semillon in sweet wines look no further than the appealing toffee apple, clover and spiciness of Sichel Premieres Cotes de Bordeaux (£5.48, Morrisons). This provides a clear signpost to what the genre is about but at an everyday price.

Those tasty lime elements also run right through 2007 McGuigan Bin 9000 Semillon (£14, Tesco – but only through the online wine-by-the-case service at the moment). This is from the Hunter Valley in Australia’s New South Wales where the distinctive soils of the old creek beds have helped make the area the semillon capital, possibly, of the world. This particular wine underpins the grape’s lime-centred signature with toast and honey influences, a lanolin-like texture and slightly earthy touches that all neatly complement its otherwise very pronounced freshness.

If this is the capital of semillon country, then the main citadel is occupied by the Tyrell Family who consistently win awards for the quality of what they produce from this under-appreciated variety. 2006 Tyrell’s Vat 1 Hunter Valley Semillon (£27.50, The Wine Society) illustrates perfectly how sophisticated the variety becomes after just a relatively short time. Nevertheless, it still has many years of aging (and improving) ahead of it. There is an orange-centred depth that contrasts nicely with those lime flavours and leads into some characteristic toastiness without diminishing in any way the clean and enlivening acidity that still shines through – and will continue to do so for several years yet.

Hunter Valley wines are a minor miracle because the weather conditions there are anything but propitious. The climate is subtropical, summers are very hot and much of its rain falls at harvest time. Nevertheless, great wines are still made there but it is unsurprising that winemakers now produce excellent wines in other parts of New South Wales. For example, 250 miles to the south-west, at the slightly cooler Hilltops region, Paris-born and educated Celine Rousseau runs the Chalkers Crossing winery. Her wines are among Australia’s rising stars and I greatly enjoyed 2010 Chalkers Crossing Hilltops Semillon (£12.25, It has the same keen acidity, touches of honey and overall roundedness as the others featured here but the citrus components are more lemony, slightly less earthy and are supported by spicy apple elements and a rather creamier texture.

Partner, I suggest, wine from this seriously undervalued grape variety with the cold water scallops Scotland does so well. Food really does not get much better than that.

2011 McWilliams Hayfield Verdelho, South Eastern Australia, 12 per cent

Verdelho is principally a Madeira grape (as the long, nutty and clean components here possibly indicate) but this Australian version has also induced the grape to yield up lemon tanginess coupled with a building grapefruit acidity and then added depth with some appealing orange texture. 
£8.99, Tesco

2012 Pech Matelles Merlot Gilles Louvet Languedoc, France, 13.5 per cent

Biological wines can be a bit odd, but sometimes they’re brilliant – like this one. Its nutty damson and blaeberry fruit shines through and is given complexity by the underlying flavours of mocha, vanilla and nutmeg. 
£9.99, Lockett Bros, North Berwick